Jenny Dance runs a language school and an EdTech start-up in Bristol. In her previous post, she told us how she came up with the idea for a pronunciation app and the got it published by OUP as Say It: Pronunciation from Oxford. Now, she tells us about the challenges she faced in bringing the app to market, and how she overcame them.
‘We really like your idea and we can see that it has lots of potential…’ my contact at one of the big publishing houses was skyping me from the US. We’d had a series of productive conversations over the preceding six months and I was fully (or perhaps naively?) expecting this to be the call where we got sign-off to bring our new pronunciation app to market.
So I was not really prepared for what came next.
‘…it’s just that we’ve had a few digital projects running recently, and they haven’t all gone to plan…’
And that was that.
They liked the idea, they felt we had an investable team, but they weren’t in a place where they were happy to put more money into another app. It just wasn’t right for them at that moment.
It would have been easy to give up at that stage, but I’d had so much positive feedback, and got so close to securing investment that I felt it was worth another shot. So a few weeks later, I was back on the phone, talking to publishers and trying to figure out how to move things forward again.
This time, I was far more successful. I got through to the very switched on Oxford University Press digital product development team. As luck would have it, they had been thinking about new ways to capitalise on their audio content, so when I approached them about using their word recordings in a new app they immediately saw the potential in the idea. Following a series of meetings, OUP were satisfied that our EdTech start-up, Phona, was presenting a viable proposition.
So the first thing I learned is fairly obvious, but worth remembering nonetheless: don’t give up at the first hurdle, be tenacious! It might just be that you haven’t yet spoken to the right person, who is in the right circumstances to run with your proposal.
We built our app in Bristol and used local facilities to host meetings and run testing sessions. When the time came for us to make a promotional video, I used a Bristol Facebook page to call out for film-makers in the local international community. Our Bristol-based Spanish film-maker had an immediate and implicit understanding of both our product and our target audience. Marina did a great job, and the resulting film is an asset we have used again and again over the past two years.
I was also able to participate in a local business development course (free of charge, run by SETsquared and the WEAHSN). This gave me the opportunity to build a solid business plan with the support of experts, and to network with other entrepreneurs.
That was lesson two: if you can, work locally. It’s generally less expensive, and it’s easier to build on the contacts you make to help you support your business as it grows. Entrepreneur support schemes, such as Entrepreneurial Spark and Growth Hub, are increasingly accessible across the UK.
A month after our EFL product launched, I started to think about adaptations of our technology for different markets. One area I was keen to explore was speech therapy. I attended a local event for digital healthcare entrepreneurs, and had a very positive conversation with a senior academic healthcare professional. She quickly confirmed that the technology could easily be adapted into a useful speech therapy tool.
One year on, I was at BBC Radio Bristol being interviewed by Dr Phil Hammond about the launch of Design Together Live Better, a co-design hub for digital health products in the West of England. The Intelligent Sounds research project we’re running through the Design Together Live Better site will give us the data we need to apply for NHS funding, so that we can develop our speech therapy product fully.
I have also been looking at an adaptation for UK primary schools, to support early-stage literacy (phonics, blending, reading and spelling). And there is scope to license our technology to other organisations and platforms, too.
So here’s the third thing I learned: by trusting my instinct, collaborating with experts and extending my personal network, it was possible to move from a product to a framework for a scalable business.
I can’t tell you whether my business plan has been successful – that part of the story hasn’t been written yet – but the signs are promising. And for me, that’s part of the excitement! I can see the path forward and I’m picking my way through, now much more confident about asking for help and finding inventive ways to collaborate with people to build the business I want.
In my experience, ELT publishers are open to solid, commercial ideas for digital products. However, you’ll need to have thought through exactly what you’re proposing and what the business model is.
You’ll also probably need to think beyond a ‘one-product’ idea if you want a scalable, sustainable business. In my case, the larger business vision became clear once I had gained some confidence through the initial product launch.
So if you have an idea which you think could be commercialised, I’d say: go for it! What have you got to lose?
Jenny Dance runs a small English school in Bristol, specialising in Business English and exam training. Before moving into ELT, she spent a number of years working in financial services, at Goldman Sachs and Lloyds. Two years ago, Jenny launched Phona, an Edtech start-up which develops products to help people improve pronunciation and speech sounds.